The story of Adam and Eve in Art
The Creation of Man
The creation of humanity is mentioned repeatedly in the first five chapters of Genesis. The most famous creation scene in western art appears on Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling, where God's finger sparks restless Adam into life.
The position of Michelangelo's Adam is elucidated by comparison with the 5th-century BCE sculpture of Dionysos from the Parthenon (apparently known to Michelangelo); but in the case of the Greek image, the figure is in serene stasis, while Adam seems ready to leap into activity.
The almost touch means that Adam will not be controlled by God. Humanity's future unfolds beneath God's left arm, as Eve scrutinizes her future mate. Some say that the fingers of God's left hand settle upon the Second Adam, Jesus, who will redeem humanity from the First Adam's folly. Adam is fully mature (Midrash Bereshit Rabba 14:7 puts his age at 20), his beautiful face lacking life experience. This painting reflects the first account (Genesis 1:26f.), where God creates by language: "Let us make adam in our image." The generic ambiguity of adam, meaning earthling or humanity, sets up the ongoing puzzle of Adam's sexuality: a single bisexual human being, one man and one woman, all of humanity. Eve is there, but she's not there.
A more concretely depicted version of humanity's creation is the work of God the sculptor (2:7), who shaped Adam from the dust (Hebrew masculine) of the earth (Hebrew feminine). The generic Adam (human from humus) emerges in German artist Meister Bertram's colorful creation series.
The Grabow Altarpiece, 1375-83
Similar concepts are found in many of the neighboring cultures of the Ancient Near East, as in this Ptolemaic painting of Khnemu, the creator god, shaping the future pharaoh on his potter's wheel. Standing behind Khnemu is Thoth, the Egyptian god of Time, who marks the duration of his life. Thus the universal concern of parents with the life and well-being of their children is given concrete form.
Khnemu shapes Pharaoh's son on the potter's wheel
The same concern with time and mortality is introduced into Michelangelo's Adam by this modern reworking.
Nurit Karlin, Man and Time, NY Times 1992
The Creation of Woman
The birth of tiny Eve from the side of Adam (Genesis 2:22) in the late 14th century Freiburg cathedral, looks like a vaginal birth, head first into the arms of the divine midwife.
Cathedral of Freiburg in Breisgau, Meister Bertram,
ca. 136 Grabow Altarpiece, 1375-83
In the same period, another German artist, Meister Bertram, clearly shows the rib, from which Eve was built, according the Latin translation of the phrase "vayiven et hatsela." But the word tsela, which occurs some 50 times in the Bible, consistently means "side", a structural element. Only in Genesis 2 has tsela been understood as "rib". However, the accompanying verb "and he built," "vayiven" confirms that here too, the word tsela means "side." In which case, either we read the account as the caesarean birth of Eve or as God separating the feminine side of Adam and presenting her to him. If the latter, the original Adam was an androgynous being. As already noted, the description of the formation of Adam (Genesis 2: 7) is composed of both feminine and masculine elements.
Marc Chagall, coming out of the world of traditional Jewish learning, expressed his conception of humanity using two widely known midrashim on the creation of man and woman. According to one, they were created as an androgynous being and then separated into two, male and female. According to the other, the story of Adam and Eve's creation, temptation and expulsion is limited to one single day, at the end of which they are forgiven and time begins.
Between Chagall's split androgynous figure, a third, headless torso emerges, perhaps representing the continuum of sexuality. A revolving cosmos, surrounding the figure, becomes a clock, marking humanity's last three hours in the garden. Masculine solar red and feminine lunar silver segments are switched, emphasizing the ambiguity of human sexuality.
Four hundred years earlier, in what some consider the central element of the Sistine ceiling, a matronly Eve emerges from the sleeping Adam's side. Her function will be Mother:
Now the man called his wife's name Eve,
because she was the mother of all the living
But her body is parallel to the cut off branch of the Tree of Life, marking her identity in classical Christian theology as the bringer of death to the world. Thus, Eve is like the earth that brings forth new life and takes back the dead.
Michael Bergt, Human Life Cycle, Tikkun Magazine 1998
The Temptation
A new character enters the scene by way of a word play:
They were both, the man and his wife, naked (arumim)…
And the serpent was shrewder (arum) than all the other creatures….
Genesis 2:25; 3:1
What is the need for and function of this new character? Immediately on appearing, the serpent engages Eve in a critical conversation and convinces her to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. What are his motivations? Why is she so inclined to trust him?
In both Jewish and Christian interpretative traditions, the serpent is Evil and Eve is either/both weak minded and a femme fatale. Is the serpent God's instrument for bringing about the surrender to temptation? In any event, he eventually becomes Satan, envious of the love of Adam and Eve and determined to possess Eve. Here is Satan, in the work of Australian painter, Arthur Boyd, spying greedily on the amorous couple.
Arthur Boyd, Angel Spies on Adam and Eve, 1947-8
Via Eve, he'll get them into trouble. Boyd most likely drew on the midrash of Paradise Lost, based ultimately on Bereshit Rabba.
But our research has brought us to the recognition that like all symbols, the snake is bivalent and can also be benevolent. For example, in a painting on an Egyptian sarcophagus, a two-legged snake, called "the lord of food", feeds the god Geb a red fruit.
Coffin of Penpii, The Lord of Food, 9th-8th cent. BCE
This scene might very well be the background necessary for an alternative understanding of the biblical story: the snake is a benevolent figure! His motivation is to bring the human couple to consciousness, which can only be achieved by their birth from Eden and into Time. This interpretation would explain Eve's trust in the serpent.
Yet another alternate reading of the biblical story is found in William Blake's painting, also an illustration of Paradise Lost.
Here, the serpent's scheme has come to fruition in an erotic tête-a-tête. Adam, meanwhile, is too involved theologically to notice what's going literally behind his back. Blake seems to be putting a different spin on the responsibility for falling into temptation: Eve is no innocent maid, but Adam is out to lunch.
Depictions of the Temptation are among the most prevalent biblical scenes in art.
Above, on the 14th century façade of the Cathedral of Orvieto, in high relief adolescent, and seemingly innocent Eve meets Adam's willing hand with a fig. The luxuriant Tree in the center binds all the elements together: the serpent, wound both below and above the hands joined at the fruit; an octagonal pool (a baptismal font) out of which the four Edenic rivers flow. But next to her breast, Eve hides a luscious fig in reserve. On the other hand, on the left sober Adam points a warning index finger. Legs crossed, Eve is already sliding down hill. The serpent, meanwhile, with a conspiratorial grin, sticks out his forked tongue toward Eve. All the elements of the doctrinal Christian reading of the Temptation are here.
Rembrandt, as always, has a different reading.
Who's to say that Adam and Eve are 20 and sexy? Is temptation only for the young? Is consciousness not a goal at any age? . Adam and Eve are two middle aged people who have not had the best night. Flabby Eve offers scruffy Adam a cold breakfast, which he may even be pushing away, while (as in Orvieto) he raises a finger in warning. The serpent is monstrous, lurking above the bewildered couple. Rembrandt views the gravity of this event, as opposed to the almost pornographic tendency of his peers.
Perhaps the best known Eden painting is Michelangelo's Temptation and Expulsion on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. A tantalizing three-part picture opens to the viewer. There are three couples in this painting: Adam and Eve engrossed in each other but distracted inhabit the left scene; Adam and Eve distraught leave the right-hand scene; in the center a strange couple lives entwined in the tree. What is going here?
We know from the story that Eve and Adam have a fruitful exchange with the serpent and we know that God kicks them out of the Garden for their disobedience. The narrative is replete with theology. We might ask what is the relationship of the three couples to each other and to God and to us?
On the left, voluptuous Eve and Adam are distracted from their lovemaking; they reach up into the tree, Adam holding onto a branch and aggressively reaching out; Eve awkwardly turning and reaching upward toward the serpent.
In the center, a busty serpent spirals around the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil; she offers Eve the forbidden fruit. She is joined to a sword-wielding red cherub, whose arm seems to grow out of the serpent's coils; these two figures are one. Parallel pairs of arms emerge on the right and on the left, uniting the scenes. A female serpent, the mate of the cherub: where is this in Genesis?
And on the right, a now unlovely but still naked Adam and Eve are chased from the Garden. They're still together, but it's not the same. The cherub's sword practically impales Adam, whose hands attempt to protect him, his face dismayed. Eve is hunched over, clutching her hair, her face witch-like.
What is Michelangelo saying? In accordance with Christian doctrine, the transition from carnal pleasure to angry flight forecasts the plight of humanity and the hope for redemption from the flesh. But another symbolic reading is present. Eating the fruit results in conscious sex which brings the baby, which brings awareness of the passage of time. "You will surely die" means you will understand that time means death. Awareness of time, and life in paradise are mutually exclusive. Having tasted the fruit on the left they are instantly out of Paradise and into history, on the right.
The remaining puzzle is the bifurcated serpent spiraling around the Tree. The serpent and cherub are one; good and evil, life and death are flip sides of reality, they reflect the nature of the divine.
The Expulsion
Here are three remarkably different treatments of the Expulsion.
Garden of the Happy, Masaccio, Murat Brierre,
The Expulsion, The Expulsion The Expulsion
18th cent. 1426-27 1966
The most familiar is that of Masaccio, which was known to Michelangelo from his youth in Florence. Some call this the first humanist rendition of the Expulsion, since the focus of the painting is on the emotions of Adam and Eve. While Adam covers his face in shame, his body is exposed: he is ashamed of his actions, not his body. Eve, on the contrary, covers her body, exposing the anguish on her upturned face. And the cherub hovers over them, not as a danger but as an insupportable burden.
In the Muslim painting, some of the main elements of Christian iconography are also present: Adam and Eve (here given halos and half clad) are about to exit the gate of the garden, urged by a winged angel with a sword in his hand. But in addition, curious angels both behind and above observe their banishment. On the lower right, beyond the frame, three otherwise unknown figures, Islamic personifications of evil, lead the way: Iblis (Satan), the serpent and the peacock.
A strong diagonal from the cherub's flying body cuts in half the ironwork of Haitian artist Murat Brierre, separating the earthly and the heavenly. Three heads, cut from the same round and pointed pattern, appear above the diagonal. While the cherub is entirely above the divide, it is one piece with the serpent, entirely below. Its round, vaguely feminine form, undulating to the right of the tree, is balanced by Eve's pregnant belly. Her explicit pregnancy defies artistic precedent: Other expulsions scenes only imply immanent reproduction. Eve, the "mother of all life," is still attached to the Tree of Life/Knowledge emphasizing the earthiness of Brierre's creation.
Some Modern Versions
Pretty serious stuff! Mortality, guilt, anger, redemption. And traditionally, Eve gets the worst of it. But in Yevgeny Abeshaus' ironic rendition, Eve flowers, Adam is a neboch. The inscription above them reads: And Adam ate of the fruit Eve gave him, but he didn't "get it".
So it was a setup from the very beginning?
Nicole Hollander, Sylvia, 1985
Jo Milgrom, Two Eves
Two Eves stand in relief
On a velvet garden
One leaves in haste
The second turns away
Not to decide
For additional images on this subject see TALI Visual Midrash